Think before you snatch and grab

The would-be abductors have walked free. After several dramatic days of blanket media coverage, Sally Faulkner and the 60 Minutes team have been treated with more civility and process than they intended to utilise themselves with their ill-conceived plan to snatch Faulkner’s children from their Lebanese family.

And while they still face charges from the Lebanese state, and have paid bail accordingly, they must be incredibly relieved to be en route back to Australia, presumably just in time for an exclusive presentation this coming Sunday night.

(What happens if they don’t return? Besides the forfeiture of the bail, will the Lebanese courts snatch them back from here? It would be hard to object if they did, surely?)

But the fact of their release, of course, is a further demonstration of the central problem with the entire project – contrary to expectation and dare I say stereotype, the Lebanese authorities have, by all appearances, acted reasonably.

Perhaps not in green-lighting the deal where the father gets exclusive custody in return for dropping the charges – but Faulker and 60 Minutes are surely partly to blame for provocation, given their attempt to bypass the Lebanese legal system entirely.

We Australians tend to assume that the justice meted out in other parts of the world, and the Middle East in particular, is inferior to our own. We have become so used to tales of innocent Australians – or, at least, presumed innocent on the basis of passport – abroad being locked in fetid fleapits that whenever we hear a story like this, we fill in the gaps. But not all prisons are “the notorious Kerobokan” in Bali, and not all judicial systems are rigged.

Clearly, the Lebanese family law system is one that gives fathers stronger rights than ours does.Australian-based lawyer Faddy Zouky OAM told SBS that, “The father has very strong rights In Lebanon. He even has the right to prevent the mother from leaving Lebanon, if he wishes – if they were still married that is.”

How retrograde and sexist, we might think, seeing as we have a family law system that weighs the interests of parents equally, with a strong bias towards joint custody. But the reality is that a number of notionally more sympatico countries have a similar system. There have been several cases of children being taken to Japan in defiance of court orders, and that country only ratified the Hague Convention in 2014. Would 60 Minutes snatch kids from the streets of Tokyo?

I don’t have children, but I can’t imagine many things worse than losing access to them, particularly amid all the acrimony of a marriage breakup. But while I can understand that the trauma of the experience would leave a parent eager to have the children returned no matter what, I’m entirely baffled as to why 60 Minutes would have decided to get involved with and, according to Lebanese authorities, funded the abduction. It’s not a telemovie or a video game. The consequences are real.

It’s also widely agreed, and surely common sense, that child abduction has a detrimental impact on children. The father was the first to subject his children to this, of course – but does that make it permissible for the mother to have them snatched with maximum drama from their grandmother’s care? And for the cameras to be rolling throughout adds an extra dimension of moral complexity.

Did nobody at 60 Minutes think of the impact on the children? Or were they simply a prop, their undeniable cuteness a convenient hook to tug the heartstrings of middle Australia?

More disturbing still, was the story of a blonde Caucasian mother tugging back her li’l Aussie battlers from their Lebanese dad red meat for the sectors of the audience who still haven’t gotten Cronulla out of their systems?

We are now in a society that does not forget. Once upon a time, those children would have needed to visit a library and leaf through microfilm images to find the reports of what happened to them. They probably wouldn’t have bothered. Now, the sad facts of this case will spring up whenever Noah and Lahela put their names into a search engine (hi guys – I’m really sorry).

There are many lessons in all this. Firstly, child abduction is about as hard as – well, about as hard as anyone besides 60 Minutes, with long form in this area, might rationally imagine. If it goes badly, not only is there a risk of all those involved getting locked up, but the children could entirely foreseeably be injured. Can the supposed experts at Child Abduction Recovery International guarantee that in a place like Beirut, nobody will start shooting?

And secondly, the children’s wellbeing needs to be put first – not just by the courts, but by TV producers looking for a potent story. And sometimes media organisations need to have the wisdom to turn down a juicy story if it’s potentially not in the interests of the people who are offering it to them.

International law is a minefield, and accordingly, there are no easy solutions to these situations. Getting former soldiers to snatch kids is not a sensible way to resolve complex and sensitive disputes. Careful diplomacy is what’s required, not cloak and dagger stunts. How much harder has this case made it for the next Australian-raised kids who end up facing the same situation overseas?

And finally, while I realise that expecting a commercial current affairs show to exercise restraint is like demanding that Donald Drumpf display humility, surely any sensible analysis of this situation will conclude that it was a mistake. The Nine employees could well have faced long sentences, and they and their families deserve considerably more care to be exercised by their employer in future. And the cost to the network is not just a huge financial payout, but also a loss of reputation.

Parents in a similar situation here in Australia make their cause worse in court, not better, if they take matters into their own hands in this manner. The same approach should be applied overseas. Sally Faulkner and the 60 Minutes crew are indeed fortunate that the Lebanese judicial system seems to have treated them with considerably more respect and consideration than it received.

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